Caitlin Esch: So I think a lot of investigative reporting whether it's like a big project or a small project you're doing it to take what is sort of like an anecdote or something that you just don't even know and try to get it to a fact.
Reporting great stories involves a lot of patience, persistence…and sifting through the paper trail. In this episode, three producers talk about how going through thousands of documents and developing relationships with sources helped them turned their stories into audio gold.
I’m Tanzina Vega, and this is Werk It: the Podcast, a compilation of some of the best moments from the live event.
Sitara Nieves: Oh my goodness. Hello everybody. So lovely to see everybody here. I'm amazed everyone is here so early so hi. I'm Sitara Nieves. I head up podcasts and video and a few other things at Marketplace and I'm really excited to be here. Thank you for having us be the very first people you hear from. This is Madeleine Baran. She's the co-creator, host, and lead reporter for the investigative podcast In The Dark. And this is Caitlin Esch. She is a producer, reporter, and also co-creator for the docu-podcast The Uncertain Hour.
So. I'm so excited to be on the stage with these amazing investigative reporters and storytellers. If you haven't subscribed to their podcasts, do it now. So this panel is called “Looking for Gold? Dig.” because all of our jobs, no matter what we do, is about finding unique stories, unique characters, and finding surprises all along the way. And both Caitlin and Madeline have a ton of experience not just in the podcasts that they make now, but also in their past careers as producers and reporters in finding those stories and characters and narratives. Basically one scoop at a time. Digging, digging, digging, digging, digging. So that's what we're going to talk about today. We only have 30 minutes. So there's not going to be time for a Q+A. What we did, which people may have seen, is we sent out a survey ahead of time to sort of do a pre-Q+A. And we got lots and lots of questions from from you all. We got about over 40 questions. We're going to get to as many of those as possible in the session.
So let's get goin. To kick us off, here are a couple of the questions that we got from you: What are three characteristics someone should look out for when identifying the right stories? And, when trying to find the right story and characters, what should be your first step? What are the first questions you want to ask of yourself and your characters about the story? So both of these questions -- and we've got a couple more on that on the same tip -- are getting at how you know that you're asking the right question and you should move forward. And Madeleine, why don't you take that one for us?
Madeleine Baran: Yes so In The Dark and just in general as an investigative reporter I always think about stories in terms of a question. So I don't think about it like oh I'm interested in the criminal justice system I should do some reporting on that. I think like with Season 2 of In The Dark: Why is this man Curtis Flowers been tried six times for the same crime? And then if you have a question like that which is, you actually don't know the answer to -- This is an important thing. Like you can't and like create like a fake question and be like I solved it right away. Like you know like you have to have a legit question. And then also it needs to be important. So it can't be -- you know, kind of. It depends. You know, you can have a quirky question for a quirky story. But if you want to do serious investigative reporting, it needs to be important. And then if you structure it that way, you'll know, like, oh am I answering this question? Not like, is this interview helping me answer this question or not?
And this might, to me this seemed like an obvious point. But when -- I used to come from like I came from an online and print background, and when I switched over to radio, I started to hear this saying that -- it's probably familiar to a lot of you in the room. And I think I also especially heard about it from Samara who is the senior producer of In The Dark, who’s probably here, which is that a story is someone doing something for a reason. Which -- have people heard this before? Like who came up with this? Like to me like it doesn't make any sense as an investigative story idea. It's like it's a person with a motivation, like we all have a motivation right now. Like it's let's it's not super fascinating right? Like, we want to come to Werk It, so we’re here. That's not really like a story, you know? I mean, it sort of is, but it's not a good story. Like a better story might be like why, you know, why was Werk It created? Why was it necessary to have a space for this? So like I think that a lot of times radio doesn't provide that same kind of background. Anyway. So I think you should instead of thinking like, here's a person doing a thing. You should think about what's a question that I want to answer.
SN: It's great. And I'm going to move to another audience question on that same front which is: When starting a podcast with a broad theme, do you need to have all the stories for the first season lined up, or start with a few and have faith that the rest will follow? So, Caitlin, why don’t you take that one?
Caitlin Esch: Yeah. Well, no you don't need to know what all of your episodes are all of your stories will be, and you probably shouldn't know what they are before you go into. I'm totally with Madeleine. You should start with some driving questions that are really good questions. And we do series on broad themes. Our first season of The Uncertain Hour is about welfare. And one of the questions we were asking seems really obvious, but 20 years after welfare reform, what the heck is welfare anyway? Most people think they know. Most people think that if you live below the poverty line, you get money from the government, it's taxpayer funded, and it's an entitlement program. But actually most people that live below the poverty line don't get welfare. More than 75 percent of families below the poverty line don't. So our question was: Where does that money go? Who gets welfare? Who doesn't get welfare? You know, it goes to fund programs. Very unexpected programs. So Krissy Clark, who's the amazing host of The Uncertain Hour, and I went on a multiday state road trip. I think we have some tape from Indiana. Krissy -- I think all you need to know going into this is that Krissy is talking to a woman named Brandi who found herself unexpectedly pregnant and was looking for an abortion.
[audio clip] So I called the number. Brandi set up an appointment came in as soon as she could. And it's set up in this beautiful old house very homey. I walked in are how pink and fluffy everything in that room was. At the appointment she made it clear why she was there. I told them pretty much flat out like I'm interested in getting an abortion. I knew that until I was financially ready, not in school, all of that, just wasn't going to be an option. Brandi says she was hoping there was still time for a medical abortion. The kind with a pill which you can only do in the early weeks of pregnancy. The lady was very friendly, supportive, but when I said that I wanted an abortion she kind of shied away from that. She would just kind of keep talking like, ‘Well, we can get to that adoption option there are other things that we can talk about and you know we'll get to that sooner or later.’ But her counselor never did get to that. In fact, Brandi didn't know it at the time, but there was no way she would receive an abortion at women's care center or even get a referral for an abortion because it turns out Women's CareCenter is what some call a crisis pregnancy center. A pregnancy resource center with a specific mission that includes steering women away from having an abortion. It also turns out the center Brandi went to and its anti-abortion efforts have been partly funded since late 2014 by federal welfare dollars through the program Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. [end audio clip]
CE: Yeah. So that was in Indiana and we didn't know when we started that reporting that we would end up in that place with them. You know, doing a story on that program. But that's where it led us. It was a classic sort of follow the money kind of story.
SN: And how many episodes did you actually know or did either of you actually know, that you had in the can when you started out? Just as a range? Is it one, is it eight?
CE: Three to fifteen.
MB: I mean you just don't know what they're going to be. I mean, we would know it was a multipart series. But if you really don't know what you found out yet, then you can't. You don't know like this episode is this, or this episode.
SN: Right. So it really is just about it is about knowing that you have the right question and feeling that. So why don't we turn to once you have the question, what you do next, which is try to find the people that are going to help tell the stories and the documents that might help support the stories that you're trying to tell. So. We have another listener question which is: What's the best way to find the people and the stories that are not super online? Because we live in 2018. Obviously there's a lot of information we can find out about people that you might run across in everyday life about each other. But Madeleine, maybe you can talk about how you find the people who aren't online.
MB: Yeah and so when we think about a story that's not online. First of all it's good because if a story is online that someone else has done it so -- most likely. So. For us you know it gets back to this question. So like with Season 2 of In The Dark, like these questions can really guide you into places where no one has gone before. And even in like a daily news story. Like you might find yourself asking a question that no one else has asked and then that leads you off the Internet to like some guy's house looking at some notebooks or something. But you didn't get there because you're like looking for a guy with notebooks in his house. You got here -- well, maybe you did. I don't know. But like you probably got there because you had a question and you find this guy who's got these notebooks. So for In the Dark Season Two, once we were looking at Curtis Flower's case and how could he be tried six times, one of the things we found out was that the juries who tried Curtis in every trial were either all white or mostly white.
And so we had another question. One question leads to another and the question was: Well, does Doug Evans, this district attorney, does he and his office always do this? Do they always disproportionately strike black people from their juries in trials going back to when he became the district attorney in 1992? So we decided to answer that question which took us way offline. We were never really online for this story to begin with. But anyway so we have amazing reporter Parker Yesko who we assigned to try to answer this question. And she went digging in these courthouses in this in north central Mississippi to try to compile the raw material. Because no one knew the answer this question. It wasn't tracked; no one is tracking the race of the jurors. It was all scattered and all these individual pieces of paper and all these different courthouses. And so no one even knew how many trials had taken place. So the first thing Parker did was figure that out. Going through these like handwritten books. And so she located 418 trials. But that was sadly only the beginning. And then we're going to play a clip right. That gets at what Parker kind of what happened next in her fun process.
[audio clip] Parker went looking for the jury lists that would tell her the race of the people who'd been called for jury duty in each one of those 418 trials. And she went looking for the transcripts of the jury selection which would tell her why the potential jurors had been struck. And some of those records, it turned out are kept in some really strange places. In one courthouse, the files were stored in the old men's bathroom. The clerks told Parker not to go in there without a mask. It smells like raw sewage. Like it's just bubbling. In Winston County, the records were in an old jail cell. So I got let into a jail. She made a point of being like, ‘This courthouse has never burned down. So we have a lot of extra stuff here.’
Step three: Parker had to take all of these records, all these old papers from bathrooms, and jails, and storage vaults, and turn them into something usable. She needed to make copies of these records. But here's where she ran into a problem. Because the court clerks could make the copies for us. But if we did it that way, we'd be charged at least 25 cents a page. And Parker needed a copy at least 100,000 pages. Which would mean that, at minimum, this was going to cost $25,000. I was literally like I do not have access to that kind of cash. And so Parker had an idea. She decided to buy a scanner and she brought it in to the Montgomery County Courthouse and Wynonna and the clerks were like, ‘Wow you bought a scanner!’ They were like how resourceful! You got a scanner! like they were like totally game. And so the clerks agreed to let Parker move in with her scanner and start scanning away. Parker would go from courthouse to courthouse. She would set up her temporary office, pull the record she wanted, and start scanning, removing staples as she went. Remove staple. Scan. Remove staple. Scan. Staple. Scan. Loading the scanner, ripping staples out and then with any actual time like sorting through the docket.
Parker kept going. Weeks and weeks passed. Our producer Raymond came down to Mississippi to help. So did Will. Summer turned into fall and Parker was still at it. Scanning, scanning, scanning. Until one day. We have now scanned all trial files at all eight courthouses. It's done. How does that feel? It's amazing. I never want to scan another document in my life. By the end of all this Parker had scanned more than one hundred and fifteen thousand pages of court records. [end of audio clip]
MB: So aside from that process being able to offer a very credible scanner endorsement, which you can see me after the event. So Parker did all this and then she gave it to our data reporter Will. And Will spent months analyzing the data and then we got an answer to our question which was: Yes, this district attorney's office was disproportionately striking black people from juries, not just in the Curtis Flowers case. And the rate most importantly -- what was the rate of that? It was nearly four and a half times the rate that this office was striking white people. So I think a lot of investigative reporting, whether it's like a big project or a small project, you're doing it to take what is sort of like an anecdote or something that you just don't even know and try to get it to a fact. So now that's a fact that exists in the world. We know the rate and people can can act on that. But you can sort of see the process of -- it’s not a high tech process. So it's like you get your question, and then it's kind of obvious almost how to answer it if you have your question. It's like someone can tell you you got to get these records. Sadly.
SN: So so obviously not everybody has a Parker at their disposal, which is sad for all of us. So Caitlin, I want you to talk a little bit about the work that you did chasing documents about Purdue Pharma for an episode on last season of The Uncertain Hour. Where it was basically just you looking for documents and how you proceeded.
CE: Yeah. I mean people generate a long trail of documents and so do companies. And I work at Marketplace, so we do a lot of reporting on companies. And I think starting out, I just made a long list of all of the places. I mean, we always kind of have a running list of all the places you can go to look for documents relating to companies. I mean, SEC filings, lobbying disclosure forms, tax forms, contracts with government, court documents, of course. And for that episode we had this driving question of: How did a drug as powerful as heroin -- OxyContin -- wind up being marketed and prescribed for moderate aches and pains and then widely abused in the street as early as the mid to late 90s in places like Appalachia and rural Maine?
So we were looking for regulatory paperwork, filed a whole bunch of FOIA’s with the FDA and got some stuff that was sort of interesting, and other people had gotten most of it before. And we knew that there were all these lawsuits that were underway. And right now there are hundreds of lawsuits against Purdue Pharma and other opioid companies as well. But they're all sealed. All of those documents are sealed. So then we found out that there was this wave of earlier court cases in the early 2000s that were all settled or settled for little bits of money or thrown out. And so we just made a long list of all the courthouses and by “we” I mean “I”. Me. I made a long list of all of the different courthouses, and the judges and the lawyers law firms involved and just sort of went tick down the list and tried to get access. And we eventually did find a judge in a county in West Virginia who was willing to let us come in. And he gave us a court order to come in. And I didn't bring a scanner. I wish I had thought of that. I brought reams of paper so that I could make copies for free. But then I had to carry them out. So you know many, many pounds of paperwork.
MB: Been there as well. I brought like an empty suitcase.
CE: That’s what I did, yeah. It's better to bring a scanner, I think.
MB: Yeah, I learned the hard way as well.
CE: Yes. And that was where we found all of the documents that sort of brought our episode to light. There were internal marketing memos. There were focus group reports and depositions. And it enabled us to tell the story about the relationship between the FDA, this big regulator, and this company Purdue Pharma and how they brought this drug to market, which had major consequences.
SN: So there's there's two things I want to highlight from what you both just said. And one of them is -- and this sounds really obvious -- but you both showed up two places to get the documents that you needed. And there's a lot of those documents that you just can't FOIA or request. You actually have to show up and get or or information from people. And then the second one is something that's on the screen behind us. But I just wanted you, Madeleine, to talk about it a little bit. Which is just the document mindset that you both talked about a little bit, but just to go into a little bit more.
MB: Yeah so when we started out in an investigation we think about like we’ll put someone's name on the board, or a company, or an office, and think about like what are all the documents that this person or this business might generate? And part of it in a company is figuring out how information flows in the company. So if it's a police department, well, there's police reports. But what are all of the, what's all the different paperwork? And so one of the other things. I mean there's some examples like on the slide of different types of documents a person generates. The other thing I would recommend is, if you're reporting like if you're a beat reporter or you're doing any kind of reporting at all, like, before you get into like even considering an investigative thing -- regardless of what kind of story you're doing -- a lot of times, it's really helpful to just ask to go on a tour or to just go to the office and hang out. And then when you do (and no one's going to care about this. Because this is like the most boring request ever) and you want to go and see where all this stuff is.
So like you know you get a tour and like it --. Maybe it's like a small town police department. Maybe it's a large you know state transportation department and you're like: Oh like what's this filing cabinet for? How many forms you have to create to do this one thing? That sounds really annoying. And what you're trying to do is get a sense of like all the paperwork that can be generated. So that then when you, you become like the expert like the document expert about this office. So then when you are requesting information you know, oh there's like a police report, but there's also this thing called like, whatever, some weird name that no one. But I know because I hung out there that they also create this other type of report. And then they create some sort of tracking slip and I know the filing cabinets it’s in, and you know that clerk is super overworked and nothing's digitized. But now I'm friends with her. And so if I'm like, “Hey like I can just take care of this for you.” Like I'll just go in there and figure it out. She'll be fine with that.
So a lot of it is like trying to figure out who has access to this stuff and building relationships with them. Instead of the other approach which it depends on the company. Look, you can't do this with like the FBI. Like you can't be like, can I get a document or like I'll take care of it. But like most of the time like most the time you were not investigating the FBI right. At least from personal experience. And so like a public records request is like, is like a way to say like ‘Check. I did my job. I requested the public records.’ But actually a lot of the time you need to go there. Because like me -- and it's not that adversarial. It's like behind that public records request is like some person -- usually a woman -- who's like working in some office somewhere, who might not know where all this stuff is, who might have other things going on. So, yeah, you really do like what Caitlin did. I mean, you need to show up when you can. And then you can kind of collaborate in a way you know like, ‘Oh I'll deal with this for you or I can make these copies, or I can scan them,’ or whatever you end up doing.
SN: Well that leads to the to the last audience question, actually, which is that sometimes the best people in stories don't want to get in front of the mic. Any tips for building trust and convincing them that it's worth it? So I’m going to hand that to you, Caitlin. I think you have maybe some good advice for us.
CE: Yeah I mean characters are so important, especially when you're telling stories that are really policy heavy or document heavy. You need people and voices to bring those stories to life. And I will often start a story or an episode with just, you know, calling every single person that I could possibly think of to on a subject and I'll have 100 to 150 pages of background notes that I'm just feverish only typing while we talk.
And it's not recorded and I'm not planning to use it in any polished way, but I might act on that information -- and that's very clear. And that's how we find, that's how we find our people. I was calling around this town in Appalachian Virginia trying to find someone who was on the ground when pain pill markets were forming in the mid to late 90s, who saw it happen, who understood how it worked. And I was calling law enforcement and pharmacists and all the obvious people. And finally someone who worked undercover in that area was like there's one guy you have to talk to. He was on pain pills for many years. He knows the market really really well. He sold drugs for a while. He's clean now. He was busted a couple times by the police, got clean, left the area, and we ended up meeting up -- texting and meeting up in a parking lot. And he was very skittish and didn’t want to be record at first. Then agreed to be recorded, but didn't want his name used. We probably met and talked for hours before he agreed to share his story with us and let us use his name and his voice. And it just, it's about developing relationships, it's about putting people at ease. A lot of people don't, have never talked to a reporter before and don't know how their story will be used, or are skittish about how they'll come off, or whether they'll get in trouble for saying what they say. And you just have to put the time in. And, you know, a lot of people I talked to, I mean we never use most of it. But it's about putting in the time to find the people who will agree to be interviewed and share their stories.
SN: Madeleine, you want to add to that?
MB: Yeah. I mean, one of the things that sometimes stressful about investigative reporting is like you have these people that you need to talk to like this person. Like this person who happens to live like at this one spot who saw something and you can't like swap them out for like another person. Like you can't talk to a neighbor. You need to talk to this one. And so you end up with these people who are not public figures at all, but are incredibly important for you to talk to. And so you have to, like what we talk about on our team a lot is: Why would this person talk to me? Like why -- not like, “why would people talk to me?” But like why would this person in particular talk to me? And you know people have all different types of motivations. I feel like a central motivation is cuz I'm bored you know or -- I don't know -- or because nobody listens to me anyways, or like here's this person who seems nice. It could also be because I hate my job, or because like you know I had like axe to grind with someone, or because I feel misunderstood, or because I take pity on you because it's raining and it's like seems annoying for you. Whatever it is, like, we always come up with like one or two reasons why we think that that person, based on our backgrounding of them, might be likely to talk to us and then we incorporate that into our approach to them. So if we think that someone's going to talk to us because they're dissatisfied with how they've been treated in the past, well, then obviously, of course, like very early on when you're trying to talk to someone, you acknowledge that that's how they felt and then it kind of helps to build trust. Because you're showing that you sort of understand, sort of at least, sort of where they're coming from.
And then, yeah. So that's kind of I would say how we how we proceed. And you know it's always like a challenge, though, because you never really know what you're going to get when you go to talk to someone. I mean, you really have no idea. But I think that what you're trying to do is put people at ease, but at the same time you're there for information. And I think showing up. Like, with season 2, we did a lot of just knocking on doors and being persistent in that way. And I think that was helpful.
But you know it's fundamentally a strange thing. You know, it's like we're strangers, asking you questions. We know a lot about you, which is weird. You don't know anything about us. But like we know a lot. Especially if you're not a public figure. That's weird. And then we like give you like a business card, like to formalize our bond. Like, ‘Don't worry. Like we can talk because like you need a favor of my phone number on it.’ So it's very odd, right? Like what we're asking of people. But I do find that most of the time people will talk. And so -- I mean almost always people will talk. Because when you think about , like in your lives like when was it like how many people actually listen, you know? And so it's like a rare quality. So someone comes and they're actually listening. That's actually a pretty big deal. And so all of this preparation that we do like we background people, sometimes we role play what we're going to say. We think about their motivations. All of that is also done so that when I go like call someone or knock on their door, I am in the mindset of ‘This person is going to talk to me. Like this is going to be normal, I'm going to sit down with them, we're going to talk a couple of hours, I'm going to find out everything I want to know, and I'm going to leave.’
Versus like going and being like you know ‘How this is going to work?’ Because if you like have your own weirdness, it's like, don't do that to the person you're interviewing. Like they have enough. Like this is weird enough. Like you need to go in being like: ‘This is normal. Here I am. I'm a professional. I do this for a living.’ You know? And you have to have like -- even if you're like faking it initially, like as a reporter and you don't feel confident, I do think like as best as you can, fake it until you actually feel that way, the more success you'll have.
SN: Yeah, and the more background research and roleplaying ahead of time that you do, the easier it is to fake it, even if you're super nervous.
MB: Totally. Yeah. bBecause you're prepared, right?
SN: Right, because you're prepared, yeah. What do you do if somebody you come to the door and it's somebody that you know you need to talk to and they say no?
MB: You just keep talking to them.
SN: You just keep talking to them?
MB: Yeah. Seriously that's like my. It's remarkable how many times people will say ‘I don't want to talk to you.’
CE: And then start talking.
MB: It's almost like a way that people say they're going to talk to you. ‘I don't really want to get into that.’ But you're like well, and it's and then you just ignore. I just often, I'm not talking now about like people that have like legit reasons, trauma. I'm talking more about like: ‘I don't really want to get into whether or not Curtis wore these kind of shoes. I just don't.’ And you're like, ‘Well, you know, it's kind of crazy right? Because there's all these people’ And you just become this like blabbering idiot ,which is like not necessarily hard, depending on the person. But anyways. And so then then they just continue talking. And yeah. You don't want to manipulate somebody but I often feel like when you say the best advice is just ignore, just ignore that. Like you know, and. That also works for people in power, too. It's like you don't want to be the reporter who is like, ‘Oh ok sorry. Like, I'll leave now.’ like you want to be like the person who going to get information.
CE: Totally agree.
SN: Blabbering is a very good tip. So we're almost to time. And I would love us to just leave you with a couple of takeaways from the session. And I'm going to start with you, Madeline.
MB: Yeah. So if you're -- I guess what I would say that if you want to do this type of work. If you want to do investigative reporting. You know, now I work on a large team that was not at all always the case. I was working as a general assignment online reporter and and in a radio newsroom. Doesn’t make any sense, right? But I found a way to do it. You know, like working kind of an off hours of teaching myself. So if you want to do something you want to do investigative reporting, don't ask your boss for permission to do it. Because like all it could happen then is someone could be like “No”. So instead you just should do it. And like you know kind of in the off hours, maybe like an hour here, an hour there, bring something to your boss. And you're like, ‘OK I've actually been investigating this jail that actually has like a lot of injuries on it and I think I should do that.’ If you're normally like I was covering things as exciting as it's raining, the road is being repaired, then like you have like ‘OK I could do that story. Like I could get you that rain story. Or I could get you this other story which you've secretly already finished.’ So the editor’s like ‘Yeah, do that.’ And you're like ‘OK.’ And it didn't take you very long. That's kind of surprising.
And then you build trust in the editor. Like you keep doing that and eventually at some point ,maybe the editor is like, ‘You know, you can take like Friday afternoon to do this.’ And you start to get actual time like in your job for this, because you've shown that you're successful at it. And then you get to do it more. Or maybe you work at a place where you can almost never do that, but you spend an hour every Friday on it. And an investigation that might take a full time investigative reporter a month takes you three years, but it's fine. Because I think -- like the main thing here is that if you have a story that you believe is important, you should figure out a way to do it. Because it's always easy to come up with reasons why we can't do a story. But if you really believe in it. It's like anything else -- you should figure out a way.
CE: Yeah I mean I work on a small team now and you just have to be stubborn, persistent, and sort of obsessed with finding the answers to a certain question. And it might take years which, that happens. But that's OK.
SN: So we're all around today and tomorrow. So if you have other questions about your own stories, finding people, any part of what we've talked about today, or anything else, come find one of us. And we'd love to talk to any of you. So thank you to Caitlin and Madeleine. Thank you.